19 Fiction Books That Shaped America

Updated: Sep 28, 2020

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Happy 4th of July!

Today I wanted to celebrate our American holiday in a special way for my fellow book-lovers with a list of “19 Fiction Books That Shaped America.”

This list includes fiction by American authors that I have personally read, and which I believe have had a major influence over time.

(This list was inspired by the “Books That Shaped America” list put out by the Library of Congress during a special exhibit they hosted in June of 2012.  The original LoC exhibit featured novels, poetry, and non-fiction books that all “shaped Americans’ views of their world and the world’s views of America.”  If you want to see the full list put out by the LoC back in 2012, click here: https://www.loc.gov/item/prn-12-123/)

So without further ado, here is my adapted list of “Fiction That Shaped America,”… books I have actually read myself (so that I could comment on why I think each was so impactful!), and which have stirred imagination and contemplation in the readers of their day and continue to do so today.

19 Fiction Books That Shaped America

1. Washington Irving, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1820)

According to the Library of Congress, this was “one of the first works of fiction by an American author to become popular outside the United States.”  Though Irving did not invent the concept of the Headless Horseman, his variation of the story has been remade countless times as TV shows, movies, and more.   I read this in college, and though it was sort of difficult to get through (it’s long, and the writing style is dense), it is definitely a classic worth exploring as the source behind so many modern adaptations.

2. Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Scarlet Letter” (1850)

This novel is set in New England in a strong Puritan culture, and explores the ideas of sin, guilt, and evil.  Hawthorne’s powerful use of symbolism and his strong, thought-provoking themes have made his writing, and this book in particular, a common subject for study and literary analysis… I remember studying several of Hawthorne’s stories in my college literature classes!

3. Herman Melville, “Moby-Dick”; or, “The Whale” (1851)

Who hasn’t heard of Moby Dick? This is an extremely well-known and frequently-studied work of literature.  American students from high school to college are asked to read and analyze this book.   In fact, one school wrote an entire blog post explaining their decision to include Moby Dick in their curriculum for 11th-grade English:

“Moby Dick touches on many important American themes such as the frontier. Similarly, it provides a great way to talk about literary movements such as romanticism (which it both employs and questions) and modernism (which its unconventional narrative structure anticipates in fascinating ways). It also provides a way to look at how different American writers respond to each other. There are sections of Moby Dick where Ishmael is clearly responding to the ideas of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. In others, his similes echo the work of Homer and Milton… The richness of Melville’s prose provides an elegant model and the opportunity to talk about the advantages and disadvantages of elaborate ornamentation in writing.” 

(See full post here: https://www.hackleyschool.org/page/news-detail?pk=844380)

I’ve heard students complain about Moby Dick (it’s a VERY long book, among other things), but I taught an excerpt in a high school literature class and some of my students actually liked it enough that they wanted to go read the rest of the book!

4. Harriet Beecher Stowe, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (1852)

I have only read parts of this one (I’ll just admit that up front!).  But I recently attended a homeschool convention where this very book was discussed as an example of literature’s power to change an entire nation.  The empathy Stowe’s writing elicited for her fictional characters opened readers’ eyes to what was happening in reality and stirred up a real-world societal shift.  It doesn’t get much more influential than that.

5. Mark Twain, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (1884)

The Library of Congress’ description of this book included this:

Novelist Ernest Hemingway famously said, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called ‘Huckleberry Finn.’ … All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”

There’s really not much left to say after that!  Though controversial, this book has had a massive and lasting influence on writers and readers alike.

6. Stephen Crane, “The Red Badge of Courage” (1895)

I read this novel in school, and it was… heart-wrenching.  Crane’s ability to depict the brutality and cost of war through the eyes of this story’s characters is the reason it has had such an impact over time.   According to the Library of Congress, “most war novels until that time focused more on the battles than on their characters.”  Crane, on the other hand, dives deep into the personal impact of the battle on an individual, and by doing so, delivers a powerful and thought-provoking portrayal of war.

7. L. Frank Baum, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” (1900)

The Library of Congress calls this “the first fantasy written by an American to enjoy an immediate success upon publication.”    Has any American child not heard of the yellow-brick road, the Wicked Witch, or Dorothy and her friends traveling to Oz?  I know even the movie is deeply ingrained into my childhood memories… and all that started with Baum’s book.  As the LoC explains:

…so powerful was its effect on the American imagination, so evocative its use of the forces of nature in its plots, so charming its invitation to children of all ages to look for the element of wonder in the world around them that author L. Frank Baum was forced by demand to create book after book about Dorothy and her friends.